President Obama pledges $90 million to Laos

c_Thoummy_Silamphan__Thoummy_Silamphan_meets_with_President_Barack_Obama_at_a_center_in_Laos.jpgPresident Obama met with survivors of UXO blasts, including former Handicap International Ban Advocate Thoummy Silamphan (shown above)

President Barack Obama has doubled U.S. funding—to $90 million over three years—to clear the bombs and munitions polluting Laos, a South Asian nation that suffered near incessant U.S. bombing campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s.

“From 1964-1973 the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs here in Laos,” President Obama remarked on Sept. 6. “More than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. Many of the bombs that were dropped were never exploded. Over the years, thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured.” These U.S. air strikes included more than 270 million sub-munitions from cluster bombs.

Through the end of 2014, Laos reported at least 50,570 casualties from munitions, mines and other explosive remnants of war. Among the casualties, 29,522 people lost their lives.  

“We welcome the increased funding,” said Jeff Meer, Executive Director of Handicap International U.S.  “Sadly it’s not enough to remove the daunting levels of explosive contamination in Laos, where 35% of the country remains polluted with explosive remnants of war. And money should not be the only thing committed. As the voice for thousands of ordinary Americans firmly opposed to needless civilian casualties in wartime, Handicap International urges the U.S. to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and commit to banning the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs.”

Handicap International is also keen to see how much of the funding will benefit victims, who will need lifelong access to rehabilitation, mobility devices, and often prosthetic limbs or braces.

The pledge is a sharp increase from when President Obama took office in 2009. At that time, the U.S. budgeted a mere $3 million for clearing land in Laos and supporting victims. President Obama gradually increased the commitment throughout his Presidency, reaching $15 million by 2016.

“For the people of Laos, war was also something that was not contained to a battlefield.” He said during a visit on Sept. 7, to the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Center. “For the people of Laos, the war did not end when the bombs stopped falling. Eighty million cluster munitions did not explode. They were spread across farmlands, jungles, villages, rivers.”

While at COPE, President Obama met with survivors of UXO blasts, including former Handicap International Ban Advocate Thoummy Silamphan (shown above), as well as unexploded ordnance clearance teams.

Indeed, an estimated 30% of sub-munitions dropped in the 1960 and 1970s did not explode on impact. And according to the Cluster Munition Monitor 2016, sub-munition remnants (the ones that didn't explode on impact) have killed or injured more than 7,600 people in Laos since 1964, and continue to cause new casualties every year. Around 70 million of these mini-bombs are scattered across Laos. Laos is the world's most heavily sub-munitions polluted country. Indeed, the Monitor reports that an estimated 35% of the country's territory is polluted.

“Handicap International is thrilled and delighted for Laos that the U.S. has pledged to support Laos in its goals to be free of UXO,” said Kim Warren, Head of Mission in Laos. “We’re not a recipient of U.S. funding at the moment, but we hope very much that the situation will change in the next year.”

Handicap International has gathered more than 11,500 petition signatures urging President Obama to stop bombing civilians, and to join the treaty banning cluster bombs.

President Obama is the first sitting American president to ever visit the South Asian country, more than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War. He is attending the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit from September 6–8, 2016.